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Up in the Air


In what feels like summer’s last hurrah, lots of people I know are feeling unsettled. Lord knows it could be anything spurring this sense—hurricanes, earthquakes, horrifying political decisions and actions, kids growing up and heading off to college, or simply the change of seasons. Whatever it is, more than a few folks have remarked about feeling anxious, a little stressed, and not sure what their next steps might be. They have told me this, I presume, because I find myself in the same situation—up in the air about what comes next.

In truth, I find this to be an uncomfortable state of being. It’s just so much easier to relax when I know my next move, my plan, or my goal. This, I’m realizing quickly, is why most of us are so drawn to the structure of work, school, and other organizations that provide an external structure and timeline. In the same way we grow accustomed to the height of each step on our living room staircase, it doesn’t take long to acclimate to the routine of work. And because work is the foundation of most of our lives for so many years, we schedule the other elements of our lives around that. This has to be one of the reasons that going back to work from time to time is a bit of a relief to me. I know the drill. The deadlines are familiar. The actions and consequences are clear.

I could make my world smaller with very little trouble. No one would fault me for settling in with a good book and my

Netflix queue.

What I’ve discovered since retiring is that we don’t have to worry as much about things being up in the air if we’re living a simple and predictable life. If I loved to golf and go to the movies, the most anxiety-producing event might be a bad day of chipping or the film I wanted to see moving to another theater. This is when I realize that I’ve kind of done this to myself. When I was working, especially near the end, I became continually more aware of how small the world I was living in had become. One thing I longed for was a sense that I could try new things, take risks, and reinvent myself in a larger arena. It turns out that inherent in every one of those goals is a huge dose of the unknown.

If I want to be a writer, I have to send things out to editors and publishers and agents, and then I have to wait and see. If I want to explore the world—and not just places I’ve already been—there are going to be many days of wandering around a little confused and unsettled. If I want to grow and adapt as I go, I have to face the fact that there will be lots of stumbling and a few falls. And, if I’m really eager for things to change as they do, I have to let them. I can’t control what other people do, how schedules end up working, or other people's decisions that might influence my life.

The fact is, if I really want to put myself out in the world, I have to be willing to move with it and shift when it shifts. I can structure my own tiny universe and build my internal strength to keep me from becoming completely vulnerable to everything around me, but otherwise, what happens next is anybody’s guess. I know now that I’m retired and have put myself into my surroundings in a somewhat unplanned and unstructured way, that this is really where the good stuff happens. It’s just that I don’t know when it will occur and I don’t even know exactly what it will look like when it does.

I could make my world smaller with very little trouble. No one would fault me for settling in with a good book and my Netflix queue. It’s just that I can’t help but believe I will regret having chosen calm and safety over growth and adaptability for this part of my life. Our lives of work and raising kids and buying houses and mowing lawns are perfect times to find a routine, settle into a somewhat predictable pattern, and take care of our business. But as long as we’re healthy, this new end of things affords us the chance to live a life we didn’t plan exactly and one that surprises us every day. It bugs me to not have full knowledge of what’s on the horizon, but the more I let it unfurl, the more comfortable that feeling of not knowing becomes.

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